Wednesday, 28 January 2015

The Five Faces of Fear


Jay Eales The Five Faces of Fear (2013)
Darn - I really should have got around to this one sooner, and I'm not sure quite why I didn't. My general dislike of eBooks would be one significant factor. I find the whole Kindle deal unpleasant, and not really at all like reading a book as I recognise it; so with forty or more big, fat paperbacks stacked in a tall, sexy pile awaiting my attention, it's easy to forget I also have a specifically new arrangement of zeros and ones stored on that black square thing. Additionally I realise I have begun to resent these Señor 105 novellas by some peculiar psychological convolution of association.

Señor 105, for those who don't know, is a masked and vaguely supernatural Mexican wrestler who has adventures in the tradition of some of the weirder Luchador films. He was created by Cody Schell, and the plan was for one of these eBook novellas to appear every few months in the general spirit of a comic book or the pulp magazines of the thirties and forties - to which Señor 105's escapades allude to some degree. The thing which pisses me off, and which forms the core of my great big metaphysical ball of bad vibes, is the love and effort which has gone into this series in contrast with the general indifference which has greeted it.

So far as I am aware, the main Señor 105 sales drive has been on Gallifrey Base, an internet forum populated by Doctor Who fans. Señor 105 first appeared in an Iris Wildthyme story, Iris Wildthyme being a character created by Paul Magrs who turns up in some of his Doctor Who fiction; so I suppose you could call this a spin off of a spin off of a spin off, if your criteria is centred upon degrees of separation from the logo of a corporate entertainment franchise.

Gallifrey Base has about four million members, and there's a fair few of them hanging around in the section specifically concerned with books, which is the virtual arena in which our man has had some coverage. Señor 105 novellas are short - so they don't take too long to read - they're cheap, they're fun, and they're eBooks so it's not like the space they take up on a shelf is valuable space which could be better employed as home to The Brilliant Book of Doctor Who Sink Plungers and Plumbing Accessories or some other indispensable masterpiece; and guess what? Ignoring the fact of my having written one, they're pretty damn readable and pretty damn great.

Despite this, sales have been depressingly limited because - well, take a wild fucking stab...

—Here, take a look at this. You might like it.

Does it feature that mysterious traveller in time and space known only as the Doctor?

—No, but it's still pretty good.

I don't understand.

You do something nice for people. You spend an hour or so preparing chicken in walnut sauce, and they'll tell you it looks delicious but they're really in the mood for McDonalds, and would you like us to bring you back an Egg McMuffin, and oh you should try one - they're really nummy.

Anyway, to get to the point, The Five Faces of Fear is another hit, or should have been. Jay Eales writes tight yet breezy prose with confidence and the sort of attention to certain kinds of detail which make him a perfect fit for this sort of story. His Mexicana rings true, giving this the genuine feel of a written equivalent to Luchador movies with familiar Cantinflas types staggering in and out of the pulquerias in the background, and even that same peculiarly pensive pacing one sees in certain films of that era, and specifically films which saw no contradiction in wedding ludicrous slapstick to high drama, although this is probably unavoidable if one of your supporting characters is a sentient gas inhabiting a balloon.

Sheila was positively fizzing with excitement. Señor 105 had asked her to undertake a secret mission for him. For this vitally important escapade, she had decided to wear her most inconspicuous balloon, one that was the colour of sand. Rodrigo had done his bit to help by drawing a big curly moustache and sunglasses on it with marker pen.

Without giving too much away, the story is pacey and all very enjoyable, roughly speaking Señor 105's own version of the X-Men's Days of Future Past. It's dramatic where it needs to be and funny where it needs to be without pulling faces or planting whoopee cushions on your chair. It doesn't contain the meaning of life, but then it doesn't need to.

The Five Faces of Fear is another wonderfully written little gem which will probably remain ignored for no good reason whatsoever, and now I need to download the one by Stewart Sheargold.

Available from this site right now for peanuts. Just buy it.

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

The Science Fiction Weight-Loss Book


Isaac Asimov, George R.R. Martin & Martin H. Greenberg (editors)
The Science Fiction Weight-Loss Book (1983)

I think it was our birthday - that is my wife and myself having both been born on the same day - and we were celebrating at J. Arthur's with the rest of her family. J. Arthur's is a fussy, slightly pretentious San Antonio restaurant of middling standard, more properly known as J. Alexander's but I tend to think of the place as J. Arthur's in reference to the rhyming slang. I opened the present from Bess's mother and it was this book. I experienced a moment of confusion, mistaking the title for an actual weight loss guide and thinking that my mother-in-law was perhaps suggesting I could stand to cut down on the pies, which seemed a little rich given the average girth of everyone else sat around the table. Closer inspection, or more properly actual inspection, revealed it to be an anthology of science-fiction shorts with fatness as the unifying theme. Oh okay, I thought, getting it at last. Bess's mother tends to be quite unpredictable with her prezzies, but she always chooses well so I looked forward to reading the thing.

Unfortunately the theme is followed with varying degrees of fidelity and success from one story to the next, with Stephen King's Quitters, Inc. at the most tenuous extreme with its brief few paragraphs about how packing in the fags can give you a bit of an appetite. Being what might be termed a chubby chaser in so much as I personally prefer the fuller figure or even the considerably fuller figure to the no more lettuce for me, I'm stuffed types, I was hoping for some decent, possibly Swiftian science-fiction examinations of fat as an issue - body image, social conditioning, metabolism, cultural significance, dietary myths, eating disorders and all that sort of thing. Unfortunately, of the stories which actually use those few extra pounds as anything other than plot texture, mostly it's just freakish sedentary fatties failing to stick to a diet written with faint traces of sneering. I expected better because Asimov of all people has ever been - or at least seemed like - champion of the awkward fucker who doesn't fit in, so it's disappointing to find that he too reduces everything to the less cake, more exercise diet.

Oh well.

It's not a bad collection. Vance Aandahl's Sylvester's Revenge and William Tenn's The Malted Milk Monster are decent, and Orson Scott Card's Fat Farm is actually pretty great despite it being by Orson Scott Card, a man who famously knows what's best for the rest of us due to certain unpleasant religious convictions. There's nothing truly terrible here - excepting possibly Stephen King's gratuitously unpleasant offering - but it's all a bit underwhelming. Contrary to the claims of Asimov's introduction, The Science Fiction Weight-Loss Book didn't particularly inspire me to eat less either, so J. Arthur's overly-rich and needlessly salty menu still has the lead on that score.

So there's me with a spunk garnish on my salad next time I'm in the place...

Monday, 26 January 2015

The Ticket That Exploded


William S. Burroughs The Ticket That Exploded (1962)
The Ticket That Exploded is one of Burroughs' more intense cut-up novels in that the cut-up texts tend to dominate with not much in the way of more conventional forms to dilute the flow of information; and those parts of the narrative comprising regular, instructional texts about the operation of tape recorders and suchlike tend to be punctuated by means of hyphens rather than full stop with no additional concession to sentence structure, thus blurring the distinction.

Cut-up text is of course not so much random words and phrases as words and phrases selected for their apparent meaning from otherwise effectively random words and phrases. As with much of Burroughs' writing of this kind, impressions are formed by the images which seem to be described, and so a narrative appears to emerge as you read, even if it's hardly a linear narrative. One supposed purpose of the cut-up is divinatory or at least revelatory, allowing either the future or the truth to be revealed as a pattern within the otherwise random juxtaposition. Being as The Ticket That Exploded seems mostly written as random juxtapositions, it feels like certain truths of modern life and western society skinned and sanded down to expose the workings - not pretty to look at, but that's what's really going on here.

Word evokes image does it not? - Try it - Put an image track on screen and accompany it with any soundtrack - Now play the soundtrack back alone and watch the image track fill in - So? What is word? - Maya - Maya - Illusion - Rub out the word and the image track goes with it -

A lot of this reminds me of Debord's spectacle, specifically the separation of that which exists from its own image:

This is the principle of commodity fetishism, the domination of society by intangible as well as tangible things, which reaches its absolute fulfillment in the spectacle, where the tangible world is replaced by a selection of images which exist above it, and which simultaneously impose themselves as the tangible par excellence.

This is probably nothing new in terms of either Burroughs or whatever it was I said about any of his other books, but it's worth saying, and worth noting how Burroughs managed to give each novel its own distinctive flavour despite that he was doing something essentially quite repetitive for most of his career. This one feels closer to science-fiction in the traditional sense than at least a few of the others, and still without following any conventions of the form, aside from a curious nod to Henry Kuttner's Fear; and on the subject of such references, I'm also intrigued to have here found a mention of New Worlds magazine and specifically Barrington Bayley, to whom Burroughs credits some innovation or other. I don't know much about Bayley, beyond having enjoyed The Four-Colour Problem. I had an impression of him essentially being the English Burroughs tribute act, but it's nice to think that there may have been some two-way exchange of ideas between these writers.

Actually, apropos of nothing and seeing as we're here, I can't help but notice that almost everyone with whom Burroughs ever shared a cup of tea and an iced bun turns up in one of his books except for Porridge, despite them having been such amazing bezzies and all that. Curious.

But anyway...

Get it out of your head and into the machines. Stop talking stop arguing. Let the machines talk and argue. A tape recorder is an externalised section of the human nervous system. You can find out more about the nervous system and gain more control over your reaction by using a tape recorder than you could find out sitting twenty years in the lotus posture.

So we are recordings of ourselves, or something along those lines. This is one of those books you really need to read for yourself, because what it says is fairly important - once you've divined it from the entrails - and there's no point trusting to the version in summary of what is, after all, only a review.

Monday, 19 January 2015

172 Hours on the Moon


Johan Harsted 172 Hours on the Moon (2008)
About a mile from where I live is a little free library, as they're called. It's a large, brightly-painted wooden box with a glass door mounted on a pole where someone's garden borders the sidewalk. There are apparently a few of these around now, and not just in San Antonio. The idea is that you bring along some old book, leave it inside the box, and take one of the many from the shelf within. It's a neat idea, and means you get a book you might not ordinarily have picked had you seen it in a store. I suppose it's also a slightly twee idea, it could be argued, and each little free library tends to provide a window into the psychology of the neighbourhood in which it is situated. My nearest little free library, being bang in the middle of Alamo Heights, has one fuck of a lot of self-help books on offer, but this title looked interesting, so I took it and left another in its place.

Aside from Twilight - which was excellent obviously - and a pile of Who books if you absolutely insist, I'm more or less a stranger to young adult fiction, and I'm not even sure I entirely understand why such a bracket needs to exist. I wasn't a big reader as a kid or as a teenager, but I coped well enough and even enjoyed all of the usual titles thrust our way at school - Jane Eyre, Graham Greene, Thomas Hardy, John Steinbeck, Dickens and so on and so forth. I didn't read these with the feeling that they were necessarily above my head, or that they failed to address my concerns as a teenager. By the time I'd left school I was reading Philip K. Dick and William Burroughs without having been told to do so; and on reflection, I was no child genius - in fact I was pretty fucking thick in most respects; and I tend to regard those who read Asimov, Crime and Punishment or even Plato whilst they were still at school with some degree of envy and admiration. So by contrast I take the impression that young adult fiction must therefore pander to some extent, otherwise there would surely be no need for such a distinction. Harsted himself writes that in his opinion, young adults are just as smart as a lot of grown-ups and can usually take whatever you throw at them.

Well anyway, 172 Hours on the Moon is a horror story set inside a science-fiction novel. Three teenagers are selected by means of a global lottery to go to the moon for the somewhat implausible reason of this getting everyone into the idea of going to the moon again, causing funding to thus flow freely because everyone loves teenagers or summink. So they go to the moon with some grown-ups who do all that flying the spaceship stuff, and it turns out that there's a secret abandoned NASA base up there, left over from the seventies and still working. The reason for the base being abandoned turns out to be scary moon ghosts resembling the very people they are causing to shit themselves, terrifying doppelgängers who bust airlocks, sabotage spacesuits, leave passive-aggressive messages on computers, and all the sort of stuff you would probably expect them to do unless you've never watched television or been to the cinema. Annoyingly we don't actually find out anything about the doppelgängers, beyond that they probably have something to do with 6EQUJ5, a genuinely mysterious signal picked up by SETI astronomers back in the seventies; so the novel is a few hundred pages of teenage whining which suddenly turns itself into Isaac Asimov for just long enough to remind you of the scary scenes in whichever CGI thriller you saw last, then ends with the revelation of the doppelgängers having arrived on Earth.

It's not a bad book, and it chugs along nicely once we're all acclimatised to the three main characters being more or less complete wankers, but it doesn't actually have a story, which is a problem. Everything it does is done so as to allow the narrative to hold a torch beneath its chin and go boo! in your face on page 244, and to then keep going boo! for the remaining hundred or so pages, and that's all it does so far as I could tell; and as for our heroes...

The windows were fogged up. The breath of eight people was creating condensation in the capsule, and Mia had to wipe the glass at regular intervals to be able to see out. Not that there was much to see. The stars that had so engrossed and transfixed her were starting to bore her. They weren't changing; nothing was changing.

Interstellar travel eh? Talk about booooooooring. I mean just shoot me now, except that won't happen 'cause you never let me do anything. I hate you. It's so unfair.

Characterisation consists of one of our crew being in a band and also a fan of the Talking Heads because they were like in her dad's record collection and like some of that old stuff from when the bloke who wrote the book was growing up is like really fetch.

Gretchen, stop trying to make fetch happen.

Okay, I didn't not enjoy this. It does what it does efficiently but suffers from a lack of ambition, as I would guess must be inevitable when an author presupposes his audience won't be interested unless they are specifically able to recognise themselves somewhere in there. Harsted is interviewed in the appendix, and he insists that he has not presupposed anything of the sort, but I have too say it sure reads a lot like he has. I suppose there may have been some subsidence during translation from the original Norwegian, although when Mia bemoans the death of her beloved iPod in response to learning that the team may be stranded on the moon for up to a year before a rescue mission can reach them, I have a feeling this isn't simply an interference pattern that's emerged from somewhere beyond the language barrier. I suppose that at forty-nine years I'm some way outside the age range of the target audience, although that didn't stop me enjoying Twilight and I don't even have ovaries.

Given that people who don't read books tend to be, almost without exception, thick fucking cunts, if whining teenagers are no longer able to read books told from any perspective other than that of whining teenagers, then we're screwed. Personally I don't really care as I'll be dead by the time we get to our first president who's never read a book but can ace all six levels of Pokémon: Omega Ruby; and 172 Hours on the Moon was free, which is still better than a kick up the arse, I suppose.

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

The Weapon Shops of Isher


A.E. van Vogt The Weapon Shops of Isher (1951)
As mentioned on previous occasions, I'm still unable to leave a van Vogt title on the shelf of a store if it's one I haven't read, despite so many of them having bordered on the incomprehensible, simply because when he's good, he's amazing - at least in my opinion. Happily this turns out to be one of those titles that justifies the headaches incurred whilst trying to unscramble some kind of sense from The House That Stood Still or The Beast or any of the others. I had high hopes, having enjoyed The Weapon Shop, one of the three short stories from which this is cobbled together, and thankfully those hopes have been rewarded.

The Weapon Shop - here meaning the short story, although what I have to say applies equally to this novel - is a wonderfully tight serving of van Vogtian surrealism set in the authoritarian interplanetary empire of Isher. The weapon shops of the title represent the only significant obstacle to the empire imposing totalitarian rule over its people. Weapon shops spontaneously appear on busy city streets and can vanish just as easily; no agent of Isher is able to enter a weapon shop, nor purchase any of the weapons, their being for sale exclusively to the common citizenry. One undercover agent of Isher who manages to enter a weapon shop is expelled by the side door and finds himself instantaneously transported to the planet Mars and thus obliged to spend many weeks getting back to Earth. More than any other van Vogt title I've read, this one seems to foreshadow certain aspects of The Prisoner television series in terms of mood.

As may be obvious from the above paragraph, the weapon shops serve as a slightly peculiar metaphor for the right to bear arms. As a subject, I'm in two minds about this one, and have no wish to turn this review into an essay on the pros and cons of gun control. I can appreciate the view - as taken here by van Vogt - that totalitarian dictatorship cannot be imposed upon an armed citizenry, or at least I can appreciate the sentiment on principal. In practice I'm not sure the idea really holds water given that governments intent upon the complete - or as complete as possible - control of their people will generally find a way regardless of gun ownership, and this is without accounting for the considerable drawbacks of having so many people walking around packing heat. It's probably also significant that van Vogt weakens his own argument by having his cake and eating it: the guns sold by the weapon shops are defensive only and cannot be fired in anger, or with ill-intent, or even when hunting certain animals.

Nevertheless, the story works regardless of its own ill-fitting metaphor as an examination of the relationship between an all-powerful state and its own dissident element, how much dissent is permitted and so on; and it works not so much because the message necessarily yields any great revelation as because this is van Vogt doing what he does best, and doing it really well. The narrative swallows itself whole a couple of times, so concentration is necessary as it is with most of his novels; but this one is fairly rewarding, allowing the reader to fill in most of those details I'd swear he omits on purpose for the sake of keeping everything slightly off balance. Given the nature of Isher, the time paradoxes, the surrealism, and the supposed threat from impenetrable shops which materialise from nowhere, and which are indestructible through not being composed of normal matter, you could probably regard The Weapon Shops of Isher as a precursor to Faction Paradox if you squint a little, or if not a precursor, then at least a distant aunt. Granted that the majority of his novels are frankly fucking weird, I can see why A.E. van Vogt's posthumous reputation lags some way behind that of many of his golden age contemporaries, but it still seems a bit unfortunate in consideration of the few which are as good as this one.

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Pretty Deadly


Kelly Sue DeConnick & Emma Rios Pretty Deadly (2014)
This was a slightly bewildering Christmas present given to my wife, who is hardly known for her love of comic books, or even for actually having read one since she was about seven. It has ended up in my hands rather than the recycle bin mainly so as to avoid everyone involved having to feel bad about the exchange.

Pretty Deadly is a supernatural western, so far as I'm able to tell. It makes much use of mythology, although I have no idea whether its vaguely defined cast of skeletal bunny, vulture, and fox refers to anything culturally specific or is something more general, and unfortunately the story itself doesn't really do much to help out. To be frank, I have no idea what happens - something about Death having a daughter - and after three of the five issues collected here it becomes fairly difficult to care. The dialogue, what little there is of it, is nice enough, but it's anyone's guess as to what the hell it has to do with anything. It actually reminds me of a very specific form of overly earnest teenage poetry of the kind where every other fucking line is a variation on am I who I think I am, or am I someone else? In fact, it's not a million miles from those later issues of Sandman after Neil Gaiman eschewed telling a story in favour of endless drippy references to Shakespeare. I loves me some flamboyantly esoteric, but there are limits, and after a dozen pages of this one you begin to get a hankering for a fucking Archie comic.

Much stock is made of the artwork of Emma Rios, at least on the internet where I have found it described as breathtaking, and references are made to her drawing inspiration from all sorts of sources - manga being one, which doesn't really work for me as I couldn't care less about manga or the big-eyed horse it rode in on. Her art is good, even great in places, but breathtaking?

Really?

Well I suppose Pretty Deadly is all right if you like that sort of thing, plenty of style without much in the way of content, the visual equivalent of Nick Cave pinching off yet another tune-free dirge about some cockmongler strangling his wife in 1878. I just think a few captions to explain what the fuck is going on every couple of pages might have helped.

Not one of Santa's better choices, I'm afraid.

Monday, 12 January 2015

Collected Ghost Stories


M.R. James Collected Ghost Stories (1931)

I suppose I should have kept in mind that, despite the appreciation of H.P. Lovecraft, M.R. James wrote ghost stories as something quite distinct from horror stories, or which have at least become something quite distinct from horror stories over the course of the last century. By certain criteria - pretty much anything upwards and inclusive of your average episode of Scooby Doo - James' accounts of bumps heard in the night appear quite tame. That said, I understand that a few of these began life as tales told to students on long winter evenings with everyone sat comfortably around the fire with their cocoa or something of the sort. So written word is here the secondary medium and is perhaps not the one by which these stories work best. It's not that they're badly written in any sense, just that the rhythm is often that of spoken narrative, and there's very little with power sufficient to tip you from your chair in its written form.

The first few tales seem to begin well, being reasonably atmospheric in compensation for nothing too astonishing turning up in time for the conclusion, usually just something on the level of a distantly seen figure which may or may not have been a ghost. After a hundred or so pages of this I began to find it difficult to concentrate on what was happening, to whom and why, culminating with Casting the Runes in which rambling discussion of some book about witchcraft becomes some bloke staring at an advertisement concealed beneath the glass floor of a tram, then something else happens without any of it seeming connected. I know it was probably just me, but I spent most of the story trying to work out whether trams really once featured advertising beneath glass walkways, because it sounds extremely unlikely and yet is described as a given.

Becoming increasingly bereft of enthusiasm each time I returned to this collection, I skipped to the end and started to read the remainder in reverse order, based on an assumption that the later ones may be more recent and therefore more accomplished. This roughly seemed to be the case as the last few tales demonstrated a sense of humour which appears absent from those which begin the collection, and the Cockney owl was particularly welcome. The last handful of stories seem more readable, but I suppose were probably still just a little too dry for my tastes.

In James' favour, he at least did well to avoid the formulaic, even suffixing The Haunted Doll's House with a note of apology for its premise resembling that of The Mezzotint. Although on the other hand, he did have a tendency to nest narratives within one another like Russian dolls - James' describes the letter from an acquaintance which in turn details the account of some other bloke who saw a scary looking tree or whatever. This aspect tended to muddy many of the tales for me, given my increasingly reduced attention span.

Oh well.

I feel I've probably done this guy something of a disservice here, as he clearly had something. Possibly my reading thirty of them more or less one after the other wasn't such a great idea.